Our lives are shaped by what we live for.
From Auto Parts to the White-shoe World of Consulting
Family is complicated. Family-businesses are even more so.
While I loved the idea of following in my grandfather’s footsteps and continuing the family tradition, I joined my family’s business because it was what I was expected to do, not because I was excited about selling spark plugs. While I learned a lot about business, the work became monotonous, my father was not a good boss, and I was an even worst underling. To add fuel to the fire, my relationship with my college sweetheart and new wife came to an unexpected end. Work-life was bad; family life was bad; married life was bad; life was bad. I entered the “dark night of the soul.” Depression filled my life as I tried to keep my head above water and search for a way out of the hole.
The way out found me.
One night on a walk to escape the emotions, I collapsed in the middle of a country road, closed my eyes, and pleaded with God for help. He answered with a transformational vision. I found myself in the dark at the edge of an abyss, contemplating throwing myself down into it. Just as I was about to do so, a cool breeze came up from the depths to brush my face and a voice that said, “You can throw yourself into the abyss or simply step across it. The choice is yours.” I could not see the other side in the darkness. I closed my eyes, took a breath, and stepped across the chasm. As my foot felt the ground of the other side, I open my eyes to look down and learned that the darkness had lifted and that the chasm behind me was only a couple of feet wide. As I lifted my head, I found myself in a desert with a mountain in the distance. Then a voice said, “Start walking.” Without food, water, or reason, I trusted an ineffable voice and headed toward the mountain. I open my eyes and was greeted by total peace. The dark night of the soul had come to an end.
Every personality test pointed me in the direction of becoming a psychologist, teacher, or priest. None of which I had any interest in given the constituencies. 😉
While working on my MBA at Saint Louis University, a Jesuit university, I came to understand that that the listening, teaching, healing, transformational spiritual qualities of those roles came together in family businesses. As cliché as it might be, I landed a dream job as a family business consultant at Arthur Andersen, where I helped fix the problems of other families that I could not fix on my own. (I worked through that dysfunctional phenomenon quickly!)
While very different from the parts industry, I thrived in the consulting environment. I might still be at Andersen if it had not been for the Enron indictment that led to its implosion. After leaving the firm I loved, I went on to spend 17 years in leadership roles at some of the world’s top consulting firms; Towers Perrin, Hewitt Associates, and Genworth. In each role, I experienced unique business models, capabilities, market conditions, cultures, and leaders.
I have led marketing at the practice, geography, industry, and corporate levels. I have worked closely with some of the world’s top thought leaders in finance, human capital, risk, accounting, and technology. My marketing strategies have targeted CEOs, CFO, CHROs CROs, CTOs, COOs, and board buyers. I have marketed to start-ups, middle-market companies, and global behemoths in the technology, healthcare, financial services, industrial and retail industries. I have integrated acquisitions, divested businesses, and helped build practices from scratch. I have experienced the quarterly demands of public companies and no less stringent requirements of private partnerships.
I have built teams in good times and reduced them in bad. I experienced convulsive cultural and leadership shifts created by liquidity events. I have witnessed firsthand the destruction of once iconic “one-firm” firms that were sold off for body parts or to line partner pockets. I saw strong, humble leaders grow businesses and people with compassion and service. I witness the pettiness of small partners with lesser agendas take down others just so they could be “right.’ These experiences showed me the best and worst of the professional services world.
A New Vision for Professional Services
Again and again, I asked myself why do so many firms fail to achieve their potential. My experience taught me that the real issue is that, while professional firms provide a great model for the modern organization, they are plagued with organizational dysfunction that leadership teams are often unwilling to address. I call this imperfection the “BS of PS. ” It leads to sub-optimal growth and it can cost a firm its soul.
In 2012, after many months of reflection, I found the purpose and the courage to start my own company. Prudent Pedal was born, not from the trunk of a car, but in my basement bike shop. I committed to creating a firm that would deal with “the BS of PS,” while bringing meaning to my life and the lives of my clients. My business would be built on practical wisdom—not the typical marketing hype. I would care for clients the way I’d been taught as a boy to do. I would take the best and leave the BS from the many firms I had been a part of or competed against.
The ironic end of Andersen, a firm built on client service, learning and development, and stewardship reinforced my belief in the importance of a culture that I had learned at my family’s company. I learned from the best at Towers Perrin and Hewitt how to manage world-class human capital. I learned “the GE way” at Genworth Financial Investments. Genworth, like Andersen, demonstrated the importance of leadership and everyday management of people and culture.
My life as a marketer has made me a brand cynic. I really don’t want to be, but more often than not “brand” and its associated values, mission statements, and personalities are just punchlines to squeeze more value out of clients, not to understand what clients and employees truly value. I believe in brands with meaning—not metaphorically. I mean firms and people making a real difference in people’s lives. We cannot compartmentalize our lives. Work is not “just business.” As my good friend, Ted Harro, says, “Work is the laboratory of the soul.”
Most importantly, I would work with firms and leaders who have chosen the difficult work of introspection and growth with a purpose—not just mindlessly selling more. Each day, as leaders, we have an opportunity to impact others through our work. We can choose either to see people as a means to an end (i.e. profit and personal ambition) or to see them as a relationship that allows us to work mutually to achieve our God’s vision for each of us.
Prudence guides which path we choose.
The Prudent Manifesto
Prudence seems like a bizarre and undesirable adjective to most people today. To a few of us outliers, it is the virtue that guides our actions and our firms.
Prudence is right reason in action.